The spatial drawings of Hannah Quinlivan

A couple of decades ago, the physicist Richard Taylor revealed to an incredulous public that Jackson Pollock’s once controversial dribble paintings did not consist of arbitrary drips of paint, but closely echoed carefully rehearsed patterns of fractals, akin to those observed in nature1.   In part, Taylor argued, that the lasting popularity of Pollock rested on the fact that viewers engaging with his work and discovering his “fractal fluency” confront something profoundly comforting and recognise similar patterns to those encountered in nature.  Although not universally accepted2,  reading art in terms of its fractal structure suggests that art can be seen as not existing outside of nature and that there are laws that bind art and nature.  Patterns in art and in the natural order and how the artist’s subjective self relates to the broader environment are key concerns in the art of Hannah Quinlivan.  Inherent in her art practice is the desire to create a flexible and fluid artwork, one which will tap into a sense of natural order.  

Hannah Quinlivan is a Canberra-based artist, who was born in Adelaide and spent her formative years at the remote Aboriginal community of Nyirripi, approximately 150 kilometres west-southwest of Yuendumu.  At the age of nine, she came to Canberra for her schooling and she was enrolled at the Orana Steiner School, where her art teacher was the distinguished Indigenous artist, Danie Mellor.  Nyirripi remained her home base with frequent visits during school holidays and, as a fluent Warlpiri speaker, her services as an interpreter were in high demand.  On completion of her schooling, Quinlivan worked in galleries and arts centres in Alice Springs and Yuendumu until family circumstances caused her to return to Canberra.  Here she commenced her formal studies in art in 2003 at the Australian National University School of Art.  From childhood, dance and art were her main passions and this has remained through to the present day.  

At art school, Quinlivan, after her foundation year, majored in printmaking, where she experimented with all of the main printmaking technologies and explored the “conversations between the mediums” 3.  However, she was increasingly drawn to the potential of relief printmaking, especially the linocut, with its three-dimensional properties.  Early experiments with colour and figuration gave way to more abstracted, monochromatic designs and increasingly she became interested in drawing as a three-dimensional artform.  Three-dimensional drawing in metal had an illustrious early history. Spanish sculptor Julio González coined the term “drawing in space” in the 1930s, while the American sculptor David Smith made welded spatial drawings in steel a significant part of his oeuvre.      

Quinlivan’s earliest spatial drawings appeared in 2003, in her first year at art school, in the form of wire drawings, which unlocked the potential for the dynamic role of shadow as an inherent part of the drawing and its conversations with the surrounding space.  The shadows suggested further shapes and brought into the art making equation the element of chance and its own sense of ordered chaos.  She viewed these within the context of printmaking techniques, firstly because a shadow in some ways has similarities to a “copy” of the silhouette of an “original”, albeit in a different manner to a plate or an editioned print.  Secondly, because the “element of chance” has such an important role in traditional printmaking, and was something that she always valued (and continues to value) about the various printmaking techniques.

The spatial drawings that emerged in Quinlivan’s art practice brought together the idea of the artist’s body moving through space and leaving behind a trail of energy in a tangible form.  Steel wire, steel rods, printed ribbons, tape and other materials are absorbed into her spatial drawings as increasingly her investigations explore the dimensions of space, time and memory.  Shadows increasingly represent memories and could stand for something that once was, but which may no longer exist as a physical presence, although still asserting its spiritual and symbolic existence.

In 2011, after completion of her honours year at art school, Quinlivan found herself particularly attracted to the work of Berlin-based artist Monika Grzymala.  Grzymala had built a profile through her spatial drawings predominantly made out of industrial tape.  The drawings, which occupied both two-dimensional and three-dimensional site-specific spaces, appeared in the form of sprawling installations.  An Australia Council Art Start grant enabled Quinlivan to travel to Berlin in early 2013 to spend a month with Grzymala to observe at first hand her art practice (as an assistant) with the senior artist in the role of guide.  Repeated visits to Berlin made Grzymala into an important mentor for the early development of Quinlivan’s art, both as a source of inspiration and as an artist who “gave permission” within the art world for her to develop her spatial drawings, a term that Quinlivan has adopted from Grzymala’s description of her own work.  Grzymala came from a tradition of monumental stone sculpture and in her tape drawings sought to discover the intuitive spiritual ambience of her spaces, while Quinlivan, an artist only fourteen years her junior and from a printmaking background, sought in her art a more personal, even autobiographic experience.  Her wire and metal rods have a greater permanence and demand a much more deliberate fabrication process than working with tape.  The feel of the work of the two artists is quite different, even if in much of their methodology and philosophy of art making they share much in common.  

Another significant source for the development of Quinlivan’s ideas on spatial drawing lay with the writings of the French Marxist philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre and his ideas concerning rhythms of urban spaces and how these rhythms impact on the inhabitants of these spaces.  His book Rhythmanalysis (1992), published a year after Lefebvre’s death and built on the theories of Lúcio Alberto Pinheiro dos Santos and Gaston Bachelard, became a significant source for Quinlivan’s thinking.  The key argument advanced in this book is that the human body is composed of several rhythms and that these rhythms exist at the intersection of place, time and the exertion of energy.  Lefebvre spoke of rhythms of four varieties – secret rhythms, which included physiological rhythms and psychological ones of memory and recollection; public rhythms, such as ceremonies; fictional rhythms that included the imaginary realm with eloquence; and verbal rhythms and dominating-dominated rhythms, defined as “completely made up: every day or long-lasting, in music or in speech, aiming for an effect that is beyond themselves”4.   From here Lefebvre argues for four alignments of rhythms – Arrhythmia (conflict or dissonance between or among two or more rhythms), Polyrhythmia (co-existence of two or more rhythms), Eurhythmia (constructive interaction between or among two or more rhythms) and finally Isorhythmia (the rare equivalence of repetition, measure and frequency)5.

Quinlivan observes that, for her, “Rhythmanalysis is useful when making site-specific spatial drawings, as it helps me to see the world as a tangle of relationships and flows, rather than a set of discrete things to be understood separately.  It is … to observe spaces like a child listens to the sound of a seashell.” 6   Lefebvre provided for Quinlivan a flexible metaphor for the rhythms of life where the artist could tap into these rhythms perceived in a specific location and through her chosen medium produce, in Lefebvre’s terminology a “previsionary portrait” of an urban space.  For her, the dimension of memory was an important component in her artmaking and the theories of Lefebvre provided an avenue for it to be incorporated.  Also, his alignments of rhythms suggested titles for Quinlivan’s future installations.  

Feeding into this broader concept, Quinlivan also taps into Raymond Williams’ much popularised concept of “structure of feeling”. 7   Williams, a Welsh Marxist theorist whose writings lay the foundations for cultural studies, argued that feelings, which, at times, could be covered by the word ‘experience’ and included broad concepts of attitudes, manners and behaviour, were not the exclusive property of an individual, but could be seen as part of a common social structure.  Williams noted that there existed “the structure of feeling of a period, and it is only realizable through experience of the work of art itself, as a whole.” 8   In Quinlivan’s art, this broad understanding of feeling taps into a zeitgeist that prevails at a particular time and within particular spaces and this creates a shared pattern of impulses, emotions, restraints and moods that exist under the surface.  

Drawing on these disparate sources, Quinlivan formulated what could be termed a holistic philosophy of spatial drawing.  She writes, “Spatial drawing is a bodily process.  As a process for observation, spatial drawing takes time.  It cannot be rushed.  The physical making process is labour intensive, drawn out over minutes, hours, days and weeks.  The rhythm analyst relies on her body, moving through space, developing the drawing.  As she works through the space and moves through the site, she becomes attuned to it bodily and spatially.  Her body is not so much a metronome as a pendulum, moving back and forth with a gait that is at first uncertain and irregular but soon becomes harmonized and rhythmic.  Each cycle back and forth gains more information, more momentum.  Through making, she must become attuned to the site’s materiality and spatiality, knowledge that comes up through her feet.” 9

While based in rural New South Wales, on the outskirts of Canberra, Quinlivan has developed an international art practice with residencies in Berlin, Singapore, Itoshima in Japan and out in the Pilbara in remote Western Australia and she has held over twenty solo exhibitions including in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney as well as in New York, Hong Kong, Colorado State University, Berlin, Cambridge, Japan and Singapore.  In a number of her installations, dancers and singers are involved with salt thickly covering the floor for dancers to move through the space and with their feet creating rhythmic marks and patterns.  The salt itself may serve as a metaphor for the memory of the sea, which is here remembered through its absence.  The suspended spatial drawings float like a suspended forest through which the dancers move and exploit the kinetic potential of the shapes.  Although the drawings are tangible and are created of solid materials, the installation itself becomes a rich fabric of changing shadows, sounds and movements and a parallel for a fleeting memory, where absence can have a presence and a life is lived working with shadows and changes.  

One of Quinlivan’s more successful site-specific spatial drawing installation/performance pieces was titled Arrhythmia and was held in the foyer of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2016.  Arrhythmia, in the Lefebvre meaning of the term, is conflict or dissonance between or among two or more rhythms and for Quinlivan it represented, at least in part, a world out of joint.  Grzymala had encouraged her to explore suspended wire drawings and here Quinlivan employs steel wire, PVC, adhesive tape and rubberised wire to create cascading tendrils through which the dancers move and which the dancers manipulate through their gestures.  A suspended drawing may also be a metaphor for a suspended existence, like that of a refugee who exists in a no-man’s land fleeing one reality and failing to take root in another.  In this piece, movement was by the dancers Rachael Hilton and Sarah Hamilton and vocals by Louise Keast and Shikara Ringdah who collectively created a strange and haunting experience. 10

Quinlivan wrote about this piece, “No rhythm of the present is free from echoes of its past, no quotidian without miracles.  Habits sustain and recreate, yet weigh like nightmares on the mind.  Each day has a momentum of its own, built on foundations of mistakes and triumphs and banalities, erupting into the present to the beat of a silent drum.  Arrhythmia explores the rhythms of the shifting landscape of this time, in which our systems and schemas have turned the air against us.  Where is the human figure in an age of disrupted planetary systems?  What is this strange beast that dwarfs us, the anonymous landscapes of the Anthropocene?” 11  This final statement may be a reference in Quinlivan’s thinking to an image of a huge and ancient glacier melting and collapsing into the sea and through its size and force dwarfing human existence.  

Dance and art, sound and silence, shadow and solid but kinetic surfaces, all unite to create this strangely transfigured reality.  A site-specific installation, especially with a performance element, is by definition an ephemeral experience preserved in the memory of those attending and through a video record and photographs.  A delicate pattern of fractals inhabits this space and that which may have seemed arbitrary unites the rhythms from many different sources with a new sense of natural order.  

Hannah Quinlivan is a young artist who has found her own distinctive voice, one which unites the intimate and the personal with the public and universal.  Her art is distinctive, intense and very memorable.

Essay by Sasha Grishin 2018


3  Hannah Quinlivan, taped interview with the author, artist’s studio at Tea Drinking Creek on the Murrumbidgee River, NSW, 1st August 2018
4  Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, time and everyday life, translated by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore, Continuum, London 2004, p.18
5  Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, time and everyday life, p.26
6  Hannah Quinlivan, taped interview with the author, artist’s studio at Tea Drinking Creek on the Murrumbidgee River, NSW, 1st August 2018
7  Raymond Williams, Marxism and literature, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977, chapter 9 ‘Structures of feeling’
8  Raymond Williams and Michael Orrom, Preface to Film, London, Film Drama, 1954, pp.22
9  Hannah Quinlivan, artist statement for Spatialisations, 2016, Pembroke College, Cambridge, reproduced in Hannah Quinlivan: Artist portfolio, 2011-2016, Sydney, .M Contemporary Gallery, 2017, p.9
11  Hannah Quinlivan, artist statement for Arrhythmia, 2016, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, reproduced in Hannah Quinlivan: Artist portfolio, 2011-2016, Sydney, .M Contemporary Gallery, 2017, p.53